Light and tender dinner rolls have just gotten better than ever thanks to an Asian technique discovered about 20 years ago. Around 2000, Asian bakers found that if they cooked some of the flour in their recipe with water or milk to create a paste, that paste, added to the remaining bread ingredients, insured you’d wind up with a light-textured bread.
This method, called tangzhong, causes the flour’s starches to gelatinize, which makes them able to hold onto a lot of moisture. When you mix this paste into the rest of the ingredients, the tangzhong pre-gelatinizes the remaining flour so that it can absorb even more moisture. And that means super light and tender bread or rolls.
Tangzhong dough is usually thick and non-sticky. But butternut squash adds its own moisture, so this dough tends to be a bit on the wet side. The point is that the dinner rolls will stay fresh and soft for several days. I’ve read that tangzhong cinnamon rolls, sent by mail, arrived soft and “fresh” many days after baking.
What does tangzhong mean? In Chinese, tang means soup, and zhong means variety or type of. So the word tangzhong describes the thick soupy cooked flour paste.
Making this dough is easy. You mix it with a wooden spoon until it comes together, beat it for a couple of minutes and hand-knead it briefly to make it smooth and elastic. If you wish, you can let a stand mixer with dough hook do the work for you, but I think the hand method works just fine.
Once you eat tangzhong rolls, I’m sure you’ll want to try the method on some of your favorite bread recipes.
Butternut squash dinner rolls
These rolls are light, fluffy, and full of character. The cooked flour and water paste — tangzhong — an Asian invention, is what gives these rolls their special texture. Well-wrapped, the rolls stay fresh for a few days.
Makes 24 dinner rolls.
½ cup water
3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
8 ounces peeled butternut squash, cut into 1 inch chunks
3 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour (14 ¾ ounces), plus more if needed
1 package (2 ¼ teaspoons) instant or active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons table salt
2 large eggs, beaten just to combine the yolks and whites
½ cup warm milk, any fat content
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled to warm
½ cup packed mashed cooked butternut squash
1 large egg
1 tablespoon cream or milk
1. For the tangzhong, whisk together the water and flour in a small, heavy saucepan, until completely smooth. Set the pan over medium-low heat and cook, stirring constantly with the whisk, until the slurry thickens into a creamy paste, about 5 minutes. Gelatization happens at about 150 degrees F, nowhere near the boiling point of water. Set aside to cool.
2. For the squash, combine the butternut squash with 3 cups water in a heavy 2-quart saucepan. Bring to the boil over medium heat and cook at a slow boil until the squash is completely tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain well in a colander and cool the squash to room temperature. Mash the squash in a bowl until completely smooth. Measure out ½ packed cup for the recipe and snack on the rest.
3. For the dough, in a large bowl stir together with a wooden spoon 3 cups of the flour (13 ½ ounces), the yeast, sugar, salt, eggs, milk, butter, tangzhong and squash to make a soft dough. Beat vigorously 1 to 2 minutes with the spoon. If the dough seems very sticky to you, sprinkle the remaining ½ cup flour onto your work surface, scrape the dough onto it, and knead for a few minutes to make an elastic dough that may be just a bit tacky. If your initial dough isn’t all that sticky, then just use part of the last ½ cup of flour for kneading. Shape the dough into a ball.
4. Wash and dry the mixing bowl, coat it lightly with soft butter or cooking spray, and plop in the dough. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap (or a shower cap), and let the dough rise at room temperature until it has doubled in size, 1 ½ to 2 hours, depending on the temperature of your kitchen.
5. To shape the rolls. Butter a 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking pan. Put the risen dough onto an unfloured surface — or a lightly floured one if the dough is a bit sticky — and pat it into a rectangle measuring about 6-by-9 inches. Divide the dough into 24 even pieces by cutting it in 4 strips the long way and 6 the short way. Each piece should weigh about 1.5 ounces. Shape each into a ball and pinch the underside to seal. Arrange the balls, seam sides down, spaced apart, in the prepared pan: 6 along the length of the pan and 4 along the short side. Spritz the top of the rolls lightly with cooking spray.
6. Cover the rolls loosely with plastic wrap and let them rise until they grow together and reach, or almost reach, the top of the pan, 1 ½ hours or even longer depending on kitchen temperature.
7. About 30 minutes before you feel the rolls will be fully risen, uncover them and brush them with the egg glaze — one egg beaten well with the milk or cream. Leave the glazed rolls uncovered to finish rising. Meanwhile, adjust an oven rack to the center and preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
8. Bake the rolls about 20 minutes, until they’ve risen nicely, their tops are richly browned, and the probe of an instant-read thermometer registers 200 to 205 degrees in the center of a roll.
9. Cool the rolls in the pan until warm and serve with plenty of butter. Or, bake the rolls a few hours ahead (or a day or two and freeze them, well-wrapped, when completely cool) and reheat them for a few minutes in a 300-degree oven before serving. Room temperature rolls are delicious, too.